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Milgroym’s Cultural Context

Naomi Brenner

Milgroym, like so many other Yiddish cultural projects in the interwar years, was a transnational phenomenon. The magazine was published in Germany, and in many ways, it reflects the economic and cultural climate of the Weimar Republic. Still reeling after its World War I defeat, Germany suffered from extreme postwar inflation, but the increased value of foreign currency was a boon to foreign publishers. High quality German printing presses were suddenly available at astonishingly low cost to Jewish publishing houses, facilitating the production of Milgroym, with its high-quality paper, color illustrations, and sophisticated design. 1 1 Leo Fuks and Renata Fuks, “Yiddish Publishing Activities in the Weimar Republic, 1920-1933,” The Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 33, no. 1 (1988), 421. In the early 1920s, new Yiddish and Hebrew publishing houses sprouted overnight, and several existing publishers relocated their operations to Berlin. Despite periodic economic and political crises, Weimar culture was a heady mix of creativity and anxiety, experimentation and fear, “the creation of outsiders, propelled by history into the inside, for a short, dizzying, fragile moment.” 2 2 Peter Gay, Weimar Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), xiv. Its political and artistic freedom in the early 1920s attracted a variety of Yiddish writers and artists, who mingled with other intellectuals and migrants in a dynamic artistic scene. From Dovid Bergelson to Henryk Berlewi, from El Lissitzsky to Moyshe Kulbak, Milgroym’s pages are filled with contributors living in or passing through Germany.At the same time, it is evident from Milgroym’s prefacing pages that its intended audience went far beyond Germany. In the 1920s, there was not much of an audience for Yiddish texts in Germany; though Ostjuden, Eastern Jews, were increasingly visible in Berlin, few had the disposable income to purchase these sorts of texts. 3 3 Michael Brenner, The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 201-202. Milgroym was produced primarily for export around the Yiddish-speaking world, evident in the presentation of the table of contents in Yiddish, German and English. 4 4 It appears that issues of the magazine were tailored to different destinations, at least to some degree, so some copies of Milgroym provide the table of contents in Yiddish and English, others in Yiddish and German. Issues of Milgroym also listed distributors across the expanding geography of Yiddish culture: Berlin, New York, London, Toronto, Montreal, Buenos Aires. In later recollections, art editor Rachel Wischnitzer Bernstein explained that Milgroym, and its sister periodical Rimon, were intended to introduce unknown and underappreciated Jewish art, from medieval to modern times, to non-specialist readers. From the very beginning, that endeavor was combined with the intent, in Wischnitzer Bernstein’s words, “to reach out to Jewish groups in America and the growing Jewish community in Palestine.” 5 5 Rachel Wischnitzer Bernstein, “From My Archives,” Journal of Jewish Art 6 (1979), 6. Milgroym’s editors aimed to educate Jewish readers across the expanding Ashkenazi Jewish diaspora about Jewish and European art.

As a periodical, Milgroym was part of a lively Yiddish intellectual landscape in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and North America. In the 1920s, there was a veritable explosion of small literary journals, from group efforts like Ringen (Warsaw, 1921-1922) and In zikh (New York, 1920-1940) to personal projects, like Itzik Manger’s Getseylte verter (Warsaw, 1929-1930). For modern Eastern European Jewish culture, as David N. Myers argues, journals “served simultaneously as a forum for scholarly inquiry, intellectual debate and ideological polemic, as well as an arbiter of literary taste and a source for financial subvention.” 6 6 David N. Myers, “‘Distant Relatives Happening onto the Same Inn’: The Meeting of East and West as Literary Theme and Cultural Ideal,” Jewish Social Studies 1, no. 2 (1995), 76. For Yiddish writers and artists in the 1920s, journals also become the site of artistic innovation and experimentation. Like the modernist little magazines that were widespread in English in the early decades of the twentieth century, many of these texts were conceived in opposition to what were perceived to be conventional modes of expression. 7 7 See Eric Bulson, Little Magazine, World Form (New York: Columbus University Press, 2016); Frederick Hoffman et all., The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947); Mark Morrison, The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences and Reception, 1905-1920 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001). Yiddish periodicals were also inspired by the growing number of periodicals that highlighted expressionism in literature and visual art, such as the German Die Aktion and Der Blaue Reiter and the Polish Zdrój.

Milgroym was part of a wave of Jewish modernist journals that viewed art as a critical aspect of the modernist enterprise. Earlier journals had incorporated visual material, most notably the long-running Ost und West (Berlin, 1901-1923), whose editors promoted Jewish cultural renaissance as a means for uniting Western and Eastern European Jews. Featuring Jewish painters, sculptors and illustrators, Ost und West saw Jewish artists in the vanguard of a nationalist cultural renaissance. 8 8 Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, “Defining ‘Jewish Art’ in Ost und West, 1901-1908.” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 39 (1994), 84-85. Milgroym also emphasized visual art, profiling Jewish and non-Jewish artists from Paul Cézanne to Emanuel Glicenstein and reviewing the Berlin exhibit of Jewish artists in 1922. In contrast to Ost un West, however, Milgroym examined Jewish art as part of European culture rather than as a distinct, nationalist enterprise. Essays on traditional Jewish art—illuminated manuscripts, synagogue wall paintings—and modern forms—Y.B. Rybak’s expressionism, Herman Struck on etching—promoted a universalist conception of Jewish art, emphasizing its historical depth and contributions to Western culture.

Milgroym’s artistic and political sensibilities also differed from other Yiddish periodicals of the time. Yung yidish (Lodz, 1919), for example, combined Jewish poetry and plastic arts, publishing the early verse of expressionist poets like Moyshe Broderzon and art by Yankl Adler and Marek Shvarts, mixing, in S. Niger’s words, “folkish Yiddishkayt with the latest word from the Moscow poetic bohemia.” 9 9 S. Niger, quoted in Seth L. Wolitz, “Between Folk and Freedom: The Failure of the Yiddish Modernist Movement in Poland,” Yiddish 8, no. 1 (1991), 30. Printed on packing paper, with linoleum block prints mixed with the printed word, the journal’s futurist inclinations contrasted with Milgroym’s traditionalist inclinations. The avant-garde Khalyastre (Warsaw/Paris, 1922-1924), edited by Peretz Markish, flaunted its rejection of convention and tradition, championing violent, blasphemous and daring expressionist aesthetics. While Khalyastre situated its radical poetics in a harsh, violent reality, Milgroym spotlighted a rich artistic world, past and present, without dwelling on politics or social issues.

Perhaps the most relevant periodical to Milgroym was Uri Zvi Greenberg’s Albatros (Warsaw/Berlin, 1922-1923) which appeared at the same time and was similarly ambitious in its visual and textual goals. If Milgroym shied away from contemporary political issues, suggesting that Jewish culture could transcend ideology, Albatros was deeply political, initially in its aggressive expressionist poetics and later in its opposition to universalism and Jewish life in Europe. Milgroym’s essays surveyed a variety of artistic media and periods, implicitly pointing to a sophisticated Jewish artistic tradition, while Albatros explicitly enlisted visual art as part of its editor’s political agenda. By the final issue of Albatros, the abstract constructivism of Henryk Berlewi and Joseph Chaikov and the expressionism of Issachar Ryback were not simply presented—as they generally were in Milgroym—but harnessed to Greenberg’s emerging Zionism. 10 10 See Avidov Lipsker, “The Albatrosses of Young Yiddish Poetry: An Idea and Its Visual Realization in Uri Zvi Greenberg’s Albatros,” Prooftexts 15, no. 1 (1995), 100-101; Shalom Lindenbaum, Shirat Uri Tsvi Grinberg: ha-ivrit ve-ha-yidit (Tel-Aviv: Hadar, 1984), 160-164. Rather than endorsing Zionism or any other political alternatives, Milgroym cultivated a more universal view for a global Jewish audience by translating European essays and criticism into Yiddish. For example, art historian Julius Meier-Graefe’s essay on Cezanne, Hugo Bieber’s piece on Danish critic Georg Brandes and Rafael Seligmann’s article on Laozi and Buddha, are all featured in the first issue. While some of these pieces had Jewish themes and others were written by Jewish scholars, they reflect the magazine’s engagement with Western culture and scholarship, broadly construed. In strong contrast to Greenberg’s Albatros, editor Rachel Wischnitzer Bernstein maintained that Milgroym was published in Yiddish not in support of Yiddishism or other nationalist politics, but because Yiddish was viewed as the most expedient cultural vehicle to situate Jewish culture within the Western tradition for Jewish readers. 11 11 Wischnitzer Bernstein, “From My Archives,” 7.

Contemporaneous periodicals not only highlight Milgroym’s uniqueness in the Yiddish literary climate of the 1920s, but also were platforms in which Milgroym was reviewed—in most cases, quite critically. In the Soviet Yiddish literary journal Shtrom (Moscow, 1922-1924), artist Joseph Chaikov blasted Milgroym as an elitist cemetery for passé Jewish art. He criticized the art essays written by academic scholars, accused the magazine of ignoring contemporary plastic culture, and railed against its approach to Jewish art as “the national bigotry of the eternal unity of the Jewish people.” 12 12 Joseph Chaikov, “Milgroym,” Shtrom 3 (1922),79. Poet Peretz Markish, writing in Khalyastre, decried Yiddish writers who abandoned Jewish cultural circles in Kiev and Moscow for the bourgeois pleasures of Berlin. Markish calls Milgroym’s initial literary editors, Dovid Bergelson and Der Nister, deserters who have abandoned Yiddish in the new Soviet Union to profit in Berlin. 13 13 Peretz Markish, “Biznes,” Khalyastre 1, no. 1 (1922), 63. Melech Ravitch also weighed in, criticizing Milgroym and other “new, elegant, truly European-dressed” books in his personal journal, Di vog. 14 14 Melech Ravitch, “Di dezertern fun dem yidishn emes,” Di vog 1, no. 2 (1922), 40. Their lavish exteriors, he argued, thinly disguised the artistic void found inside.

These critiques of Milgroym were motivated by the polarized political landscape of early twentieth century Yiddish culture. From Shtrom to Khalyastre to Di vog, 1920s Yiddish journals were typically sites of aesthetic, artistic, and political statements, rarely consensus-building or collaborative. Milgroym attracted so much criticism not only because of its luxurious German paper and full-color reproductions but because of its refusal to engage, at least explicitly, in the politics of the time. While its meditations on Jewish art and culture often have political subtexts, Milgroym’s deliberate political detachment was perhaps related to its Weimar context. In Berlin in the early 1920s, Stephen J. Lee argues, politics and culture were “to an unusual extent independent and irrelevant to each other.” 15 15 Stephen J. Lee, The Weimar Republic (London; New York: Routledge, 1998), 148. Peter Gay articulates the same sentiment in a slightly different manner, writing that Expressionists were “in general revolutionary without being political or, at least, without being programmatic.” Gay, Weimar Culture, 105. Milgroym sought to present traditional and modern Jewish arts to a broad readership, believing that art could transcend politics. Many contemporary Yiddish writers disagreed.

Reviews, even harsh ones, were part of the lively give-and-take on the pages of modern Yiddish periodicals. What is surprising in Milgroym’s case, however, is that the criticism seemed to have an effect on the magazine. Shortly after the publication of the first issue of Milgroym, a terse announcement from literary editors Bergelson and Der Nister was published in Shtrom and the Berlin-based Unzer bavegung: “We would like to inform our colleagues, whom we have invited in conversation or in writing to work with us in Milgroym, that we no longer have a relationship with the editorial board of the aforementioned journal nor are we among their contributors.” 16 16 Dovid Bergelson and Der Nister, “[Letter to the Editor],” Shtrom, no. 3 (1922), 83. Neither Bergelson nor Der Nister explained why they severed ties with Milgroym, leading to much speculation. Delphine Bechtel suggests that the highly critical reviews coming from the east led to their break with Milgroym. 17 17 Delphine Bechtel, “Babylon or Jerusalem: Berlin as Center of Jewish Modernism in the 1920s,” in Insiders and Outsiders: Jewish and Gentile Culture in German and Austria, eds. Dagmar C. G. Lorenz and Gabriele Weinberger (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994), 118. Even before the reviews, the first issue is filled with tensions between the art and literary sections, as Wischnitzer Bernstein’s belief in a new unity of Jewish art was at odds with Bergelson’s embrace of a poetics of fragmentation. This, too, may have prompted art and literary editors to part ways.

By the time Bergelson and Der Nister were replaced on the masthead of the third issue by new editor Moshe Kleinman, Milgroym’s literary section had changed significantly. The first issue had featured expressionist, symbolist, and experimental poetry and prose from a series of Yiddish writers in Berlin in the early 1920s: Moyshe Kulbak, Bergelson, Leyb Kvitko, Dovid Hofshteyn, Der Nister. With Kleinman, the Berlin-based editor of the World Zionist Organization’s Hebrew journal, Ha-olam, at the helm, Wischnitzer Bernstein’s art section was accompanied by a literary section that veered away from writers affiliated with the Yiddish Left and toward writers based in the United States and Palestine, such as Joseph Opatoshu, Moyshe Stawsky, and H. Leivik.

Not surprisingly, the magazine did not last for much longer, folding without notice after the sixth issue was published in 1924. As the German economy stabilized, the Rimon Publishing Company’s foreign revenue was not enough to produce the lavish magazines. Cost-cutting measures are evident from the third issue on, with more modest covers and shorter issues. Most of the writers and editors involved with the magazine also moved on, reflecting the transitory nature of Jewish culture in Berlin. Some contributors, like Leyb Kvitko, Der Nister and Dovid Bergelson returned to the Soviet Union over the next decade. Others, like A.N. Stencl and Wischnitzer Bernstein, made their way west, to Britain and the United States. Despite the circumstances specific to Germany, Milgroym’s fate was quite similar to that of many small journals that popped up and disappeared in Yiddish and other languages. Individuals or groups would publish their works as long as they could fund them and agree on their contents. Though Milgroym was considerably fancier and more ambitious than the modernist Khalyastre (Warsaw, 1922-1924) and the Soviet Shtrom (Moscow, 1922-1924), they were all relatively short lived given the changing political and cultural landscapes in Jewish Eastern Europe.

Despite its short tenure, Milgroym showcases the sophistication of interwar Jewish cultural production and its geographic, aesthetic and ideological range. While the magazine’s ambitious goal of instilling a new approach to Jewish visual and textual art may not have been realized, it represents something of a cultural waystation, much like the brief flowering of Jewish culture in Weimar Germany in the 1920s more generally. Situated in Berlin in this exhilarating, “short, dizzying, and fragile” historical moment, it sought to reach Yiddish readers, east and west. In the process, Milgroym provides a glimpse of early twentieth century negotiations of modern and modernist European Jewish culture.

MLA STYLE
Brenner, Naomi . “Milgroym's Cultural Context.” In geveb, February 2018: https://ingeveb.org/blog/milgroym-s-cultural-context.
CHICAGO STYLE
Brenner, Naomi . “Milgroym's Cultural Context.” In geveb (February 2018): Accessed Apr 21, 2018.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Naomi Brenner

Naomi Brenner is an associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at The Ohio State University, focusing on questions of Jewish multilingualism, translation and cultural circulation.